Will Durant

A Commencement Address by Will Durant, delivered at the Webb School of Claremont, California, on June 7, 1958.

We have a right to be proud and happy today, for our sons or grandsons or brothers are receiving diplomas from one of the most exacting preparatory schools in America. Whatever has been said -- much of it in hectic haste -- against education in the United States, here is one school that has come through the criticism with an untarnished record.

Here the civilizing combination of freedom and discipline, of science and literature and art, is producing youths grounded and rounded in all the elements that make informed and creative citizens, good providers and patient parents, loyal friends and happy men. Through four years we have watched the process by which the learning and skill of an accomplished faculty have transformed into ideal young Americans the savages whom we gave into their hands. This is the day to which we have looked forward with fond expectation, and I with mounting fear.

For a commencement address is traditionally one in which the speaker takes his stand on a pedestal of wisdom, and tells the graduates just how to step from school into life. But if seventy years have merely revealed to him how wrong he has been about so many things, and how little he still knows of all that he knew at twenty -- how then shall he dress up his ignorance as punditry, and expect these alert and sophisticated minds to take him for an omniscient Aristotle instead of an Innocent Abroad in a changing world?

The world seems now to change more rapidly than ever before, and the lessons of the years seem helpless before the challenges of the day. Moreover, general advice is an infringement upon personality; it takes too little account of differences in character, situation, time, and place. Every generalization is a speculation.

Nevertheless a task has been assigned to me, and I propose to go through with it as modestly as its inherent immodesty will allow. If now I dare to address you, it is not as one white with wisdom or practiced in the ways of the world, but as a fellow student handicapped with senility, yet as eager as ever to learn something between every rising and setting of the sun. You must season my platitudes with a grain of salt, and grant me the tolerant allowances that youth must always make for age.

My first request to you is: Be healthy. It is within your will. Barring inherited or childhood ailments, sickness is a crime; it means that you have done something physiologically foolish, and that nature is being hard put to it to repair your mistake. The pain is the tuition you pay for your instruction in living. It is a schooling from which we shall never graduate, except from life itself.

Be healthy and you will be happy; "be happy and you will be good." Let the vigor and cleanliness of your body be as precious to you as the integrity of your character and the clarity and strength of your mind.

Care of the health should be a required course, for at least an hour each week, in every year from kindergarten to Ph.D. Such a course would include thorough instruction in diet. Our bodies are what we eat, plus what our ancestors ate. Don't let restaurants lure you; they are the vampires of the stomach; they will burden your flesh in proportion as they tighten your purse. Perhaps one of the cardinal errors of our time and land is that we continue in a sedentary life the diet that served to provide muscle and heat. Let us keep our inners clean! The hospitals are littered with people who have put too great a strain on their internal organs, and have allowed an excess of imports over exports to disturb their internal economy.

Exercise! Nature intended thought to be a guide to action, not a substitute for it; thought unbalanced by action is unnatural. Do some physical work for at least an hour every day. Cut the lawn, clean the car, help with the dishes. Help your wife with her work, and let her help you with yours. Husband and wife should be helpmates; marriage disintegrates when it is only a partnership in sex, play, and conspicuous expense.

After hunger, sex is our strongest instinct and greatest problem. Nature is infatuated with continuance, and dolls up the woman with beauty and the man with money to lure them into continuing the species, and so it gives to us males such sensitivity to the charms of woman that we can go quite mad in their pursuit. Sex then becomes a fire and flame in the blood, and burns up the whole personality -- which should be a hierarchy and harmony of desires.

Our civilization has unwisely stimulated this sexual impulse. Our ancestors played it down, knowing that it was strong enough without encouragement; we have blown it up with a thousand forms of incitation, advertisement, emphasis, and display, and have armed it with the doctrine that inhibition is dangerous, whereas inhibition – the control of impulse – is the first principle of civilization.

Marriage was probably developed not only for the better care of children and property, but to save us from the tyranny of sex. In marriage that instinct is given abundant freedom, but it is channeled within limits consistent with social order. By submitting to marriage we can take our minds off sex, and become adult.

Marry as soon as you can keep the wolf from the door. You will be too young to choose wisely, but you won't be much wiser in these matters at forty; there's no fool like an old fool in love. We parents should help you to get started in wholesome married life: help you with money, and -- if you will permit us -- with counsel. Don't let your choice of a mate be determined by the accident of propinquity or the pressure of physiological needs. Don't buy a grab-bag in a coma. Let at least three months intervene between betrothal and marriage.

The difficulties of marriage are far less than its rewards. One touch of a woman's hand can be paradise -- if the touch is not for too much. Napoleon said that the only happiness he had ever known was in loving his children; and I hope you won't have children without marriage.

Character comes second only to health; intellect may come third. The greatest task assumed by such schools as this is to transform egos into gentlemen. A gentleman, as my wife once defined it, is "a person continually considerate." Kind words cost so little and are worth so much! Speak no evil of anyone; every unkind will sooner or later fly back into your face, and make you stumble in the race of life. De vivis, rather than de mortuis, nil nisi bonum.

To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves; let us be above such transparent egotism. If you can't say good and encouraging things, say nothing. Nothing is often a good thing to do, and always a clever thing to say.

Religion used to be, along with the family and the teacher, a tutor of character. For fifty thousand or more years man lived as a hunter before he consented to be a tiller of the soil, probably the character of man was formed in that hunting life; he had to be greedy, because the food supply was precarious and irregular; he had to be pugnacious to fight for food and mates; he had to be easily stimulated to reproductive ecstasy, because a high birth rate was desirable; what are now our major vices were then virtues -- that is, qualities necessary for the survival of the individual or the group.

When agriculture developed, and social organization became the most important means of survival, these powerful impulses had to be restrained. They were restrained by a moral code transmitted by parental authority, family discipline, and religious training, and they were accepted, though against the grain of the flesh, through fear of parents, and of an all-seeing God who had dictated that code, and who would reward every virtue and punish every vice. I am not sure that civilization could have come without such religious sanctions of the moral code.

Those of you who specialize in science will find it hard to understand religion, unless you feel, as Voltaire did, that the harmony of the spheres reveals a cosmic mind, and unless you realize, as Rousseau did, that man does not live by intellect alone. We are such microscopic particles in so immense a universe that none of us is in a position to understand the world, much less to dogmatize about it. Pascal trembled at the thought of man's bewildered minuteness between the immensity of the whole and the complexity of each part; "these infinite spaces," he said, "frighten me!" Let us be careful how we pit our pitiful generalizations against the infinite variety, scope, and subtlety of the world.

Build an economic basis under your life, but don't get caught in the rat-trap of money-making as a profession; that too, like sex, can be a consuming fever, and brings only fitful pleasures, no lasting happiness. Your wife will have the responsibility of stimulating you to develop all your creative capacities; but I hope she will not prod you into keeping up with all the Joneses in the town. If you become an employer your relation with your employees is more important than adding a zero to your wealth. Give every employee the full equivalent of his share in the product. Don't live in a boastful luxury based on taking more from the world than you give.

Don't tale your politics too seriously. Don't expect to reform the government before you reform human nature, or your own. Corruption is natural in government because it is natural in man. Don't be frightened by the international situation; it is normal; man is a competitive animal, individually and in groups; peace is war by other means. I believe that intelligence or fear will keep us from mutual international destruction. Evils usually beget their cure through their excess; so now the balance of terror is making for peace.

How good it is that the military competition is changing to economic competition! Let the better system win, or their combination. We are witnessing in America an Hegelian synthesis of capitalism and socialism, taking the virtues of each; and this merger, I believe, will be more productive of goods and happiness than the communism of Russia or the capitalism of the not very gay nineties. See, even in depression times, the relative happiness and exuberance of the American people.

I take this for granted in your case; indeed, we have put too much stress in recent times on intellect, too little on character; we have sharpened our wits while weakening our restraints. In my youth I used to talk about the bondage of tradition; now, as befits old age, I distrust the fetishism of novelty. We exaggerate the value of newness in ideas and things. It is so much easier to be original and foolish than to be original and wise.

For every truth there are a thousand possible errors; let us not try to exhaust the list. The customs, conventions, and beliefs of mankind are the product of the trial-and-error experience of the race through many centuries; and it is unlikely that any individual, however intellectually brilliant, can come in one lifetime to such breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding as to sit safely and wisely in judgment on ancient ways. Man is wiser than any man. Hence there is something disagreeably shallow about sophistication; it suggests cleverness about the part and ignorance of the whole. Modesty makes wisdom wiser, as it makes beauty lovelier.

Most of you now will go to college, and the sharpened competition among individuals and nations will force you into intellectual specialties. The stress on science is today so keen that college, if I may pun a bit, will give you only a "passing" acquaintance with literature, history, philosophy, music, and art.

But don't let yourselves be fragments. When your formal education is complete, give at least two hours a week to rounding yourselves out with these flowers of civilization. Make friends with great poets -- Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Dante, Petrarch, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Racine, Moliere, Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Whitman; with great art -- the Egyptian and Greek architects and sculptors, the Arabic builders and decorators, the Gothic cathedrals, the Renaissance painters, the composers from Bach to Rachmaninoff; with great statesmen from Hammurabi to Winston Churchill; with great thinkers -- Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, Archimedes, Lucretius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Newton, Kant, Schopenhauer, Darwin, Einstein; with great prose writers -- Isaiah, Jeremiah, the authors of the Proverbs and the Psalms, Demosthenes, Cicero, Seneca, Rabelais, Montaigne, Milton, Voltaire, Hugo, Balzac, Anatole France; with great historians -- Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Gibbon, Macaulay, Guizot, Michelet, Froude; and with great saints -- Buddha, Jesus, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Gandhi. I shall not consider you educated unless you make many of these geniuses your friends. Cultivate them, and you will be molded by the company you keep.

These, and the whole world of knowledge, technology, morals, manners government, literature, philosophy, and art are your heritage, which has grown incredibly through the centuries, and is so rich that you will never be able to exhaust it, to reach the bottom of this Fortunatus' purse of the race. This is the patrimony that each of us inherits on becoming civilized.

Remember to your last day this school, and these teachers who labored so patiently to transmit to you the leavening kernels of this heritage. Remember the man who kept all the threads of this vibrant institution together in one persistent and yet flexible organization, and saw you through your growing pains. These halls and courts will be beneficent memories in your coming years.

Good health to you, good work, good fortune, good character, good children, good grandchildren! Drink the brimming cup of life to the full and to the end, and thank God and nature for its trials and challenges, its punishments and rewards, its gifts of beauty, wisdom, labor, and love.